Bob King: ‘Designing posters is about ideas, not computer skills’
In the age of the Big Beast musicals – Cats, Les Mis, Phantom, Miss Saigon – who could ever forget those iconic posters that seared a single image into our theatre-loving brains and, whether you liked the show or not, stayed with you forever? The hypnotic cats’ eyes, the revolutionary waif, the white carnival mask, the scribbled outline of a helicopter against an oriental sunset.
It was indeed a golden age of poster design. All of them emanated from Dewynters, marketing monoliths of the West End, and in particular from the late Russ Eglin, creative heart and soul of Dewynters for four decades. Eglin’s protege was a mouthy, tousle-haired lad from Rochester called Bob King.
“I remember interviewing Bob in 1984,” recalls Anthony Pye-Jeary, co-founder of Dewynters with Robert Dewynter. “He was young and cocky and very much a geezer. His portfolio was excellent, very different from all the other people we’d seen. We needed a young gun to take on Russ’ mantle and Bob was a good fit.”
King himself, who recently set up his own independent studio, Bob King Creative, in Southwark after 32 years at Dewynters, recalls telling Pye-Jeary that he would like his job one day. It turned out to be more than just a cheeky quip.
Though far from academic, King knew he wanted to be an artist of some kind from the age of five. While his mates from school went off to do apprenticeships on the docks in Rochester, he was dead set on doing a degree course in illustration at art school, but his lack of formal qualifications made him ineligible. Instead, after quitting a graphics course he didn’t like, King went to work in a printshop in the West End, doing artwork and paste-ups.
This was followed by three months doing technical drawings in a civil service department. “It was like being back at school,” King says. “We all sat in rows, with the team leader at the back keeping an eye on everyone. All the others wore suits and had neat hair. I had a perm and dungarees. I didn’t fit in.” Other short-lived graphics and illustrating jobs followed, including one that he did enjoy – creating artwork for advertisements.
Big break at Dewynters
Aged 24, King went for the assistant designer job at Dewynters and his life changed overnight.
“Anthony [Pye-Jeary] was this hip guy in a sharp suit, with long hair,” he says. “I didn’t hear anything after the interview. I kept calling them and eventually Russ [Eglin] asked me to do a test piece, so I did an illustration of Paul Scofield, and they gave me the job. After a couple of weeks, I decided I didn’t like it. The theatre wasn’t a world I was used to and I felt I wasn’t doing the work I was taken on to do – illustrating and designing. But my parents and my then girlfriend, later my wife, persuaded me to stick it out. I did, thank goodness, and went on to have the most fantastic time.”
Pye-Jeary recalls: “I think it was quite an eye-opener and a culture shock for Bob at first. He’d never come across so many outrageous people before.”
The original movie poster had the title in the shape of a car. I decided to concentrate on Danny Zuko, the main character – in particular his greased hairstyle. The rest fell into place once I’d got the hair right. The negative space creates the face in a generic form. I didn’t decide on the background colour straight away: it was arrived at after several meetings with Paul Nicholas, David Ian and Robert Stigwood, who were working together as producers for the first time. I think it was Robert who suggested not just pink, but fluorescent pink. The image is still being used today, nearly 25 years later.
King soon got used to the ‘work hard, play hard’ culture of Dewynters. “We were encouraged to express our individuality,” he says. “I’ve never been a conformist. I’ve always believed the rules were there to be broken. Robert and Anthony were a fantastic double act, firing off each other. There was always a great sense of fun, which I loved. Theatre should be a fun business at the end of day, even though there is a lot of money involved. You wanted to do your best work for Robert, Anthony and Russ. I often worked late and at weekends. It didn’t matter. I had a huge appetite for creative work.”
King continues: “Russ taught me a lot about designing graphics for the theatre. I had no knowledge of that particular niche market before starting at Dewynters. He used to say, ‘It’s got to work on the side of a bus, but equally it’s got to work on a book of matches for the first-night party.’ I’ve never forgotten that. The same could be said now for digital buttons and banners. That’s today’s equivalent of Russ’ book of matches.
“Initially, Russ would give me his scribbles and ideas to work up as visuals. Then I would add in designs of my own. This helped us develop our relationship. It was pre-computer, so when we worked on the poster for The Phantom of the Opera, for instance, everything was done the old-fashioned way. It was my job to craft and fashion the shape of the mask. I used cut up Letraset for the lettering, airbrushed over the top with blue ink. I became a safe pair of hands when given scripts and productions to design from scratch.”
Pye-Jeary continues: “The 1980s were exciting times for British theatre. We were all fearless. It was a lovely company and we all got on. There was very little competition around at the time. Bob joined us at the time Dewynters really took off. Designing theatre posters and marketing is a niche business and Bob got it straight away. Like Russ, he could create a visual in front of the client, which always went down well. Producers can be very difficult and demanding. Many great posters and graphics never came to fruition because the client didn’t like it or understand it. Bob grew to understand the importance of being patient with them.”
Bob King On…
… Russ Eglin
Russ was a gentleman. We developed a good working relationship. He lunched every day at a little Italian restaurant in Soho called the Piccadilly. I would quite often join him and it was there I met Russ’ friend Paul Raymond, famous in the 1960s and 1970s for his Revuebar, who was also a regular at the restaurant. It was one of those places where you were never quite sure who you’d bump into. Paul Raymond came to one of Dewynters’ Christmas parties. He was always accompanied by his lawyer, Carl Snitcher.
… Anthony Pye-Jeary Anthony used to bring his dog Boston into the office most days and if he had to go straight to the theatre in the evening he’d send the dog home in a black cab on its own. Not long ago, I was picked up by a cab at Dewynters in Leicester Square and the cabbie remembered taking Anthony’s dog home.
… Robert Dewynter Robert cut a dashing figure, always dressed in a three-piece pinstripe suit. His nickname in the office was the Major. On his 40th birthday we arranged for him to be picked up and driven to the Savoy for lunch in a military armoured car. I can picture him standing up, with his head poking out of the top of the vehicle, cigarette holder firmly clenched between his teeth.
Dealing with producers
While King is happy to come up with any number of visuals to put before a client, what does try his patience is the kind of producer who, unable to make up his or her own mind, calls in umpteen associates to decide for them.
He says: “There are some musicals I’ve worked on where I could literally wallpaper a room with the number of visuals I’ve come up with. I can only remember one occasion when I came up with a single idea and told the producer, David Pugh: ‘This is the one you should use.’ That was the 2007 revival of Equus, with Daniel Radcliffe, and happily he agreed with me.”
King is the first to admit he is no great shakes when it comes to computer graphics. For many years, he has relied on others to realise his ideas in digital form and tweak them where necessary.
“When we started to use Apple Macs at Dewynters, I was already art directing, so I never really adapted to the change,” he says. “I understand the digital capabilities, but I don’t design on the computer. You surround yourself with good people. If you’ve got the ideas and other people can make them look fantastic, where’s the problem? There are doers and thinkers.
The original poster image up to that point had been the boy with the bowl – “Please sir, I want some more” – which always seemed a very sombre, downbeat image for such a lively musical. The most colourful character in the show, to my mind, is Fagin, so I took a more left-field approach and developed an all-encompassing title and logo brand using the title letters to create the face of Fagin on a plain black background, spare of other type. When I met Lionel Bart at the opening, he told me how much he liked the logo and that the L that formed Fagin’s nose was similar to the one he used when signing his name.
“I’ve always maintained that the idea is more important than the execution. The Mac is the tool. I scribble an idea on a napkin or the back of an envelope, take a picture of it on my phone and send it through to the client.”
As Eglin once said, it may only take a few minutes to come up with a great idea, but it took 40 years to learn how to do it.
Three years ago, King ascended to the highest position at Dewynters – chief executive – after his predecessor left unexpectedly.
“I’ve always said to my kids that you should grab opportunities when they come along, and that opportunity came along for me, so I threw my hat into the ring,” he says. “There was a strong element of ‘be careful what you wish for’. It took me 18 months to realise that being CEO wasn’t really my style. I was beginning to feel more and more that I didn’t want to go into work. That’s the time to stop and think about where you’re going. There was no bad feeling when I left. I know James [Charrington, the new chief executive] will do a fantastic job.
“At heart, I’m a creative. That’s what gets me up in the morning, that’s what I love doing. I didn’t want to sit in endless meetings, juggling figures and dealing with staffing problems. Since I joined Dewynters, it had become much more corporate, with a staff of 100. I know I’ll have some of those challenges with my own business, but they will be manageable and I have no plans to build an empire. At 57, I feel reborn.”
Q&A: Bob King
What was your first job before working in graphics? I was a security guard at Brands Hatch.
What was your first paid job in graphics? Paste-up artist at the West End printing firm Trevor Hobbs.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Make the most of it, because it all goes so quickly.
Who were your biggest influences? Ralph Steadman, Eric Gill, Storm Thorgeson.
If you hadn’t been a graphic designer, what would you have been? A garage mechanic or a film technician.
Do you have any superstitions or rituals? My dad was a merchant seaman so he had loads of superstitions. One of them was breaking a match after he’d used it. Now I find myself doing it.
Future of theatre advertising King believes the age of the big one-stop advertising and marketing agencies such as Dewynters and AKA is changing.
“There are small, specialist people like me popping up every-where,” he says. “Everybody wants choice now. Not everyone wants to buy all their groceries from Tesco or Sainsbury’s: some people prefer to buy their bread from a small bakery and their cheese in a specialist shop. I haven’t done any publicity or promotion but the phone hasn’t stopped ringing. If people want to use me, great, but I don’t feel inclined to pitch for work any more. People in the business know what I can do.”
This revival of Peter Shaffer’s play in 2007 was a big deal for Daniel Radcliffe because he was trying to rid himself of the Harry Potter image by doing something completely different. We had a really good photoshoot with Daniel, naked, sitting astride a horse, and within minutes Uli Weber’s pictures had gone global. The show was at the Gielgud Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue and there was scaffolding outside at the time. Luckily for us, the council allowed us to wrap a huge sheet of black plastic round the scaffolding so we could display the image of Daniel on the horse. It looked about three times its original size.
He settled on the name Bob King Creative because it does what it says on the tin. “Straightforward, transparent, this is what I do; I don’t do marketing and promotion. I’ve no desire to get involved in the geeky technical stuff, but I know a lot of people who are very good at that.”
How have theatre graphics changed in the past 30 years?
“Cats was a game-changer. It was all about being brave and going against everything that had gone before. That in turn spawned Les Mis, Phantom and Miss Saigon – all very spare and minimalist. Now designs seem to have swung back the other way, with a need to get more names and credits on the poster. The days of those really spare graphics have gone, which is a shame. I doubt having a whole load of names on a poster will sell more tickets. Obviously digital and the manipulation of photography have had a huge impact. The default now seems to be to show off the scale of your production.
“For me, the strongest and most effective images are the simplest and the most eye-catching, with very little text. In my experience, the first thought you have about creating a poster is very often the best. It’s an intuitive thing, nothing to do with qualifications or computer skills. It all comes down to talent and drive.”
CV: Bob King
Born: 1960, Rochester, Kent
Training: Trevor Hobbs Printers
Career highlights as graphic designer: Phantom of the Opera (1986), Miss Saigon (1989), Sunset Boulevard (1991), Grease (1993), Art (1994), Oliver! (1994), Chicago (1997), Equus (2007), Lord of the Rings (2007), School of Rock (2016)